I am old. I’m so old, I could wear that shirt. You know, the one that says: “I may be old, but I got to see all the cool bands.” That one. I was lucky.
At the very top of my list, I got to see Frank Zappa. Eleven times. And interview him. Twice. I was lucky, and in the right place at the right time.
I believe that qualifies me to explain why Zappa Plays Zappa matters. Really, truly matters. Not a little. A lot. This is important, because most of the music freaks at the Wanee Music Festival at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park never saw Frank, probably have not seen Zappa Plays Zappa, and may not know much or anything about Frank’s legacy.
There never has been and never will be another Frank Zappa. He was absolutely one-of-a-kind. He made his mark in composing, performing with a band, playing guitar, and standing up to attempts at idiotic bureaucracy (see: UMRK vs. PMRC). No other artists included more messages on his album to REGISTER TO VOTE. He cared about the Constitution; more importantly, he understood the Constitution. REGISTER TO VOTE BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE, he asked us.
Dweezil Zappa was busy fashioning a solo career for himself. He began with a single (“My Mother Is a Space Cadet”) at age 13, and he recorded albums from 1986 through 2000. In 2003, he took the instantly-identifiable opening solo on Weird Al Yankovic’s “Genius in France.” (Here’s a fun game: listen to that tune and try to identify all the songs lovingly referenced.)
Perhaps it was inevitable that Dweezil would choose to put together a band in 2006 called Zappa Plays Zappa to carry on the legacy of his father. It was a monumental decision, putting aside his solo career to recreate the music his father performed from 1965 through 1988. (He does have a solo album coming out next month titled Via Zamatta’.)
For those fortunate enough (and old enough) to have seen Frank perform, this clearly is NOT a tribute band. This is the real deal. The very best compliment you could pay to any of the iterations of ZPZ is this: Frank would have loved playing with this band! Frank was the most exacting, demanding band leader (Buddy Rich swore more, but that’s not the same thing). You ask anybody who saw Frank and has seen ZPZ: when Dweezil starts playing “Inca Roads,” tears begin to fall. I’m crying for Sharleena just writing this, for real. It’s that amazing.
For those who never saw Frank, it is as close as you can possibly get without building your own time machine. The timing, the pacing, the selection of material, the humor, the choreography, the stunning guitar solos: it’s all there. And it is there because Dweezil has worked so incredibly hard to make it happen and because the musicians on stage have the utmost reverence for Frank’s music.
Song selection? Dweezil has chosen songs over the past ten years covering the entire range of Frank’s catalog. They play the “hits,” the fan favorites, to be sure, but then you get a “Road Ladies” or “The Mammy Anthem,” and Zappaphiles go bonkers. Last year, for the 40th anniversary of Roxy and Elsewhere, the band played all the songs from that album. This tour, the bands is covering One Size Fits All, the 1975 masterpiece with so many brilliant and well-loved songs, including “Inca Roads,” “San Ber’dino” and “Andy.” I can’t wait for Dweezil to rip that bluesy guitar solo on “Po-Jama People!”
The band has had personnel changes over the years, and the current line-up is a sextet, although Scheila Gonzalez should count as at least three all on her own. Gonzalez, an original member of the band, sings and plays keyboards, harmonica, saxophone and flute. Her resumé is huge, and she is positively brilliant and riveting to watch. You’ll see.
Chris Norton went almost directly from college to the main keyboard chair in 2009. He is also a great singer and brings that falsetto so integral to many of Frank’s songs. Add violin to his talents.
Drummer Ryan Brown has an enormous resumé of recordings, TV and movies and performances, and he has been with the band for two years. He sings as well.
Kurt Morgan’s path to the band started when he worked for the Zappa Family Trust as the librarian of Frank’s voluminous manuscripts. He jumped at the opportunity to audition for the bass chair. More singing.
And finally there is Ben Thomas. If you intend to cover the length and breadth of FZ’s career, then either you need a whole bunch of folks to honor the memories of Frank, Ray, Flo and Eddie, Napoleon, Johnny Guitar Watson, Ray and Ike – or, you need Ben Thomas. His chameleon-like voice does it all with gusto and sincere and utter irreverence. He can beat-box, play trombone, trumpet, and rhythm guitar, and fidget around a bit.
That’s a band, ladies and gentlemen, that Frank would have hired in a minute. Even that guitar player, probably.
When you see Dweezil perform, there is this glow, this smile on his face, that tells you he understands and appreciates the love from audience washing over the stage. That love is like nothing I have ever witnessed. That’s why it matters.